After a summer of intense clamour and optimism, with Gareth’s waistcoats, “Slabhead’s” heroics and the genuine belief that it really was coming home, it would seem that exciting times lie ahead for English football and for English footballers. The news this week that Harry Kane is among 30 nominees for the sport’s foremost individual accolade, the Ballon d’Or, will have done nothing to quell such belief, while the inclusion on the list of Welsh captain Gareth Bale suggests that England is not the only one of the Home Nations to produce exceptional talent.
The last 10 awards have been given to one of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, neither of whom is showing clear signs of decline, though there is every chance that this year might mark the breaking of that celebrated duopoly. Last month, it was Real Madrid’s Luka Modric who won a similar Best Player accolade at the Best Fifa Football Awards, ahead of the aforementioned pair, and he is certainly a favourite for the Ballon d’Or, especially given the rape allegation currently hanging over his former teammate Ronaldo.
Modric is now 33 and enjoying a Pirlo-esque late-career bloom, reaching his peak later than most in his midfield position. Bale is 29, Kane just 25, so each has plenty of time to take home the award. The issue, though, lies not with the ticking of the clock but with the talent surrounding each. Playing in the same league as the likes of Salah, De Bruyne and Hazard has prevented Kane thus far from being named the top player in his division, let alone in the world. Bale, playing alongside Modric, can barely claim to be the best at his club.
Kane would be a popular choice for the award. Modest in both character and lifestyle, he is a welcome antidote to the average modern footballer, so often guilty of nonsense on the pitch and man-child opulence off it. Bale, after a spell as an injury-hit supporting act in Madrid, seems to be on the up again, trying his best to fill the Ronaldo-shaped hole up front. Each is seemingly at the peak of their powers, and now would be as good a time as any to win the Ballon d’Or, yet it is near impossible to look past Modric, Ronaldo and Messi when searching for a potential winner.
This year also marks the awarding of the first Kopa Trophy, a companion prize to the Ballon d’Or which is given to the best player under 21. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold is up for the award, though he will surely be beaten to it by Kylian Mbappe, the PSG star and World Cup winner, who is, incredibly, still a teenager. Mbappe, already among the best footballers in the world, is perhaps the main obstacle to a British footballer winning the Ballon d’Or in the next decade.
Michael Owen, the last British player to win the award, did so at just 21, but within a matter of five years, he was seemingly over the hill, bedevilled by myriad sprains and fractures. The dichotomy between the teenaged Englishman who scored that brilliant solo goal in 1998 against Argentina and the injury-hit punchline he became is startling. But the truth is that such a decline could happen to anybody, even Mbappe, making it possible that a young British player could develop to be even better than the Frenchman in the coming years.
With Gareth Southgate including Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount in his most recent England squad and Wales manager Ryan Giggs following a similarly youth-driven blueprint, the Home Nations are taking steps in the right direction to producing the footballing stars of the next 10 years. Their management of young players and continuing developments at grassroots level mean that Phil Foden, Sancho and Ryan Sessegnon, not to mention Kane and Bale, are all candidates to one day have their name on that famous golden ball.
Image Credit: John Parish via Flickr